Against the engine of violence: New book explores history of unarmed resistance in Palestine

Wendy Pearlman notes in her fascinating new book Violence, Nonviolence, and the Palestinian National Movement that “many find it difficult to explain Palestinians’ strategies, including those who sympathize with their goals. Witnessing lethal attacks, some wonder why there is no ‘Palestinian Gandhi.’ They suggest that nonviolent means might better win international sympathy or convince Israelis that painful concessions would not diminish their security” (3). Her book “suggests why these questions are off the mark” (3).

Early on, she notes that “scholars and commentators propose a plethora of explanations for a movement’s [adoption of armed or unarmed methods of resistance] from religious values to access to weapons, and from the escalatory effect of state repression to stark calculations on what is needed for success” (2). She doesn’t challenge these explanations so much as seek to ground them in a largely unexplored context, the structure of the Palestinian national liberation movement.

Pearlman begins by presenting a thesis about how a national liberation movement’s structure — mostly either the unity or fragmentation of its leaders and factions — is a reliable predictor of whether it engages in mass unarmed action. More cohesive movements are more likely to opt for an unarmed strategy than fragmented ones, she argues.

To explore this, Pearlman lays out the internal discussions and power struggles between Palestinian leaders and factions beginning with the national struggle against British colonialism. Most Palestinian readers will have at least a passing knowledge of clan politics and the history of rivalry and sometimes cooperation between Palestinian notables — especially the Husayni and Nashashibi families. But most non-Palestinian readers stand to gain a lot from the history the book provides of internal Palestinian politics before this became synonymous with the tension between Fatah and Hamas.

Sharing resources during Arab Revolt

Pearlman shows how coordination between leadership and the grassroots in the early states of the 1936-39 Arab Revolt allowed for a countrywide popular uprising that was largely unarmed. This cohesion facilitated the sharing of resources between village and town organizations and mutual support during the lengthy general strike. Later years of the revolt were marked by less widespread unarmed protest and more armed resistance, corresponding to increased fragmentation among the Palestinian leadership.

The book’s focus on internal Palestinian politics can appear myopic but Pearlman also puts questions of cohesion and fragmentation in broader contexts. When writing of the Arab Revolt, for example, she notes that the eventual fragmentation of the Palestinian national movement was an important step towards the increase in armed resistance but the “overriding engine of violence was Britain’s refusal to accommodate the strike’s demands” (45). She contextualizes later Palestinian violence as similarly originating first in Israeli refusal of Palestinian demands, and secondarily on issues of unity and fragmentation.

Pearlman follows Palestinian national politics under British, Israeli and Jordanian rule up to the present and helps to explain how both Palestinian violent and unarmed resistance are used not only to challenge British, Israeli and Jordanian policies, but also to position factions to garner support from the Palestinian public and gain leverage over larger parties like Fatah.

Pearlman explains that “arms were a ‘force multiplier’ giving small factions the influence that they lacked due to their minority presence in PLO [Palestine Liberation Organization] decision-making bodies. Indeed, it allowed them to transfer political contestation from the realm of formal institutions, where Fatah dominated, to military realms in which all enjoyed freedom of maneuver” (83). Later this expanded beyond minority factions of the PLO to factions and organizations outside the PLO entirely such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad.

She notes that the current partisan divides were not inevitable. “Under conditions of agreement on the basic parameters of national politics, factional competition might have been healthy pluralism. In its absence, such competition invited destabilizing fragmentation” (35).

Comparing struggles against settler-colonialism

Pearlman compares Palestinian resistance movements with those in South Africa and the north of Ireland. These three movements represent indigenous struggles in reaction to colonial activities that were only partially successful in removing the indigenous populations.

It is not surprising that she should see parallels in the three situations as they all involved settler-colonialism. It remains open to question, however, whether the theory would hold up when applied to struggles for liberation from metropole colonialism, where European powers captured and ruled overseas territories but without the colonial power moving part of its own civilian population into those lands. Such struggles would include Mahatma Gandhi’s efforts to liberate India from Britain. It is similarly worth asking if the theory would apply to the a struggle waged in a slave society as Haiti was under French control.

Violence, Nonviolence, and the Palestinian National Movement is an illuminating text. Rashid Khalidi, Ghassan Khanafani, Yehoshua Porath and others have previously written in-depth about significant parts of what Pearlman covers. But none, to my knowledge, have done so with a focus to how the organizational structure of the Palestinian national movement itself helps determine the methods of resistance.

Pearlman’s thesis is valuable in many ways, but perhaps never more so than when showing how during periods of unity, Palestinians have been able to deploy unarmed resistance (and to a lesser but still important degree, armed resistance) with considerable efficacy against both Britain and Israel. This provides further impetus behind ongoing calls for Palestinian unity.

And one last thing. The book is being sold for $99. Why on earth does it have to be so expensive?

Jimmy Johnson is the founder of Neged Neshek, a website focused on Israel’s weapons industry, and can be reached at jimmy [at] negedneshek [dot] org.